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Mythbusters: Three at the back is NOT an inherently defensive formation

Many so-called “pundits” and other honestly mistaken fans constantly refer to a back-three as a defensive formation when, in actuality, it’s far from the truth.

Mythbusters |
James Nickels

For some time, British managers have simply employed a hastily taught and poorly implemented five-man defence in order to limit opposing teams’ space. In fact, 3-4-3/3-5-2 are among the single-most attacking formations any manager could name, purely due to the numerical advantage each individual formation allows.

The ongoing claim that the five/three-man-defence is inherently defensive is, in reality, far from the case, but has been propagated and widely held by many. There are a number of styles of three-man defensive systems that, after closer inspection, go some way to disproving that age-old myth.

La Salida Lavolpiana

Juego de Posición is a concept widely held in South America - which has now spread to Spain and the Netherlands - that the pitch is split into five vertical sections, and the offence are thus responsible to play within a set of guidelines within this structure.

Each player has his own specific task or responsibility within his own zone. Pep Guardiola is a massive proponent of Juego de Posición, and as such his training pitches at Barcelona, Bayern and Manchester City are all zoned within these parameters.

Pep Guardiola’s old training pitches at Bayern Munich’s Säbener Straße trianing ground.
Google Earth

The scheme was largely developed by Ricardo La Volpe, a former Argentine footballer and manager who won the World Cup in 1978. La Volpe created La Salida Lavolpiana (the way of La Volpe) - a system in which build-up is started by the defensive midfielder dropping between the centre-backs who in turn move into the channels.

With a ‘situational’ back three established the full-backs then move further up the pitch to occupy the wings. This has today developed into a fully-blown three-man defence, and Coleman is a keen practitioner.

La Volpe is known to favour a back-three for it’s ability to cover all of the vertical channels on the pitch, high up the pitch - therefore providing numerical superiority all over. As well as occupying the channels at the back, the wing-backs push up to occupy the wings. In a 3-4-3 the winger pushes inside to cover the channels; whereas in a 3-5-2 the strikers can either play in tandem, or one dropping slightly deeper and thus able to cut passing lanes. The five verticals are occupied both in attack and defence; creating an attacking formation.

Guardiola may not implement a back-three at City, but the offensive nature of his full-backs and Fernandinho’s role to recycle and ward the central defenders seemingly replicates a 3-4-3, merely 40 yards higher up the pitch at all times, and truly shows how effective the formation can be, without actually utilising it to the letter of the law.

Coleman is evidently acutely aware of how a back-three can both protect and allow his players to flourish, if deployed correctly and worked at over-time.

Cardiff City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images

Coleman’s Methods

Chris Coleman isn’t a proponent of La Volpe - don’t get me wrong. However, he is a forward-thinking, modern manager and the methodology is self-evident in how Wales played under his tenure.

His interest in and utilisation of sports science is huge, and has paid much time and attention to the subject - more than any other manager since Allardyce - as shown by the increased use of the cryo-chambers at the academy. Players are in there more, and the club clearly wants us to see it.

Mindfulness and sports psychology is a relatively new and young concept in football, especially in England, but Coleman is a keen practitioner. One of his biggest assets as Wales boss was his ability to inspire the players and galvanise the Welsh fans.

Marketing campaigns such as ‘#StrongerTogether’ were not mere platitudes deployed in order to sell tickets, but were a clearly ordained plan to instil a winning mentality that came all the way from the upper-echelons of the Welsh FA, down to a kid eating a pie outside the Cardiff City Stadium on matchday.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship
Chris Coleman and his staff observe a minutes silence during the Sky Bet Championship match between Sunderland and Birmingham City at Stadium of Light on December 23, 2017.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Coleman himself is known as a fan of a back-three, and favours the use, but is flexible with his attacking unit. So far under his tenure we have see a 3-4-3, 3-5-2, 3-4-2-1 and 3-5-1-1 utilised at different times throughout games against wholly different opponents, but the one constant? The three central defenders.

That being said, he has not stumbled upon this system through sheer chance, but rather evolved his Welsh side to fit this system perfectly, and worked at it over-time. Now, we are seeing signs of Coleman moulding his players to fit this; signing ball-playing central defenders, energetic midfielders with high stamina, and bulky, physical strikers.

Kurban Berdyev is a name probably unheralded and unheard of in English football, but in Russia the man is an undoubted genius. He is an Uzbek coach who firstly led Rubin Kazan to a historic 2-1 victory over Barcelona at the Nou Camp in 2009, before repeating the trick as he led his virtually unknown Rostov side to a fantastic 3-2 victory over Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich.

In a recent interview, he claimed:

The formation with three central defenders is more attack-oriented than the one with four defenders. It all comes down to the functional duties of attacking and defending players. It is the perfect system.

Russian Football Premier League: Rubin Kazan vs SKA-Khabarovsk
Kurban Berdyev
Photo by Yegor Aleyev\TASS via Getty Images

As far as I am concerned, any three-at-the-back is essentially a way to get more forward players spread out in attacking positions across the pitch, while also offering effective defensive transitions to avoid being overloaded on the counter - if the right personnel are utilised correctly.

But, this may just be our problem, and it may just be time to move away from the formation, as Coleman himself has hinted:

We certainly looked better in a back four today, it has worked well for us (three at the back) getting us five clean sheets when we didn’t have any before.

We looked better when we changed formation today and asked Bristol questions.

It gives me food for thought, we will have to call upon more than one formation to get us over the line.

The formation takes a lot of time to get used to due to the wholly differing job required from each player individually, and each line of players in the side. It takes time to workout all the kinks and adapt to - each player must thrive in order to do so, but the results can be devastating. Many of our players, as aforementioned, are bailed out and protected by the system, but at the same time too many flounder in key positions.

Sunderland Training Session Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

To play a back-three to great effect, the wing-backs must be very, very fit, have ample technical ability and perform as effective offensively as they do defensively. Marcos Alonso is a perfect example of how a modern wing-back operates, and unfortunately our wing-backs either do not have the all-round ability (Jones, Love), pace (Oviedo, Matthews) or stamina (most of them) to play the role. Consequently, we suffer defensively as a result.

Much of the time in the formation, due to this problem, with either look defensively sound with no cutting edge at all in attack, or a shambles in defence but rather dangerous going forwards.

Nevertheless - It is far from an inherently defensive system as years of stereotypes have proclaimed.

However, just where do these stereotypes emanate from?

Continental Pioneers

For years our nation’s footballing minds were the pioneers of the world’s game, from Herbert Chapman and Walter Winterbottom, who transformed the domestic game, to unheralded head coaches who prevailed and thrived on the continent, such as William Garbutt and Vic Buckingham.

Garbutt, a former Arsenal winger born in Stockport in 1888 is an unlikely hero in northern Italy. He built arguably the finest side in the history of Calcio when he transformed Genoa in the 1920s. Such was his enormous influence upon Italian football as a whole, when, in 1928 Il Duce - Fascist Prime Minister Benito Mussolini - attempted to purge all foreign influence from football in the nation, he was granted immunity.

As Rory Smith claims in his excellent book Mister, Mussolini declared:

There were to be no more Misters in Italy, except one: Garbutt.

Garbutt, by the time he passed in 1964 was, as Smith claims, an ‘anonymous octogenarian living in reduced circumstances in Leamington Spa’, yet in Italy his death was deeply, deeply mourned. Manager of the national team which won the World Cup in both 1934 and 1938, Vittorio Pozzo, even claimed Garbutt the most important man in the history of Italian football.

Italian Newspaper La Rassegna Stampa covering Garbutt and his epnoymous Genoa side on the eve of World War Two.

Vic Buckingham, who starred as a wing-half for Spurs for 15 years, had a similar importance and legacy upon Spanish and Dutch football. He almost steered WBA to a league and cup double in the fifties, but by 1959 was cast away from England with his reputation in tatters, considered a dinosaur. He did manage once again in England, at Fulham from 1965-68, but was anonymous on the continent.

However, Buckingham’s next two club’s were Ajax and Barcelona, and he helped to manager both into the powerhouses they would become today. He introduced the freedom and fluidity of movement which was expertly developed by his protégé; Rinus Michels. Who in-turn had a protégé in Johan Cryuff and who then influenced Pep Guardiola - arguably the managers of the world’s most exciting football teams and amongst the most innovative coaches in footballing history.

Buckingham was far from a dinosaur, but simply decades ahead of his time. Yet, institutions in England, “the home of football”, and “pioneers of the game” ridiculed his efforts, ignoring his innovations in favour of English long-ball.

Both of these men are amongst the most innovative and prominent pioneers of football tactics on the continent. We gave football to the world, and the world promptly outsmarted us. They made effective and innovative use of our tactical systems with more talented and astute visionaries of the game, but how?

Vic Buckingham
Vic Buckingham is greeted by Fulham fans upon his arrival at the ground for a match against Nottingham Forest, London, 23rd January 1965.
Photo by Jim Gray/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

English Football’s Tactical Dearth

Even today, English football and tactics in general is still suffering a dreadful hangover from the drought of the 1980s in which English football was dominated by a dearth of technical ability and tactical game plans in favour of dreams of masculine physicality and one-dimensional, mundane football.

Michael Cox’s excellent The Mixer starts off with the following;

‘Get it into the mixer!’

These five words represent the simplest tactic in football: launch the ball into the box, take advantage of the ensuing chaos, perhaps following a goalmouth scramble, and hope to pinch a scruffy goal.

This is one of the most accurate, while rightfully disparaging explanations of the tactics of that time. This period truly was a dreadful time in which football in the nation truly stagnated.

As explained above, the institutions in England had long favoured their arrogant approach to football, in which the old way was the right way, obstinately refusing to develop. Here, tactical insight did not develop, but backtracked almost three decades thanks to one man: Charles Hughes.

Tactics and thinking was dominated and heavily influenced by Hughes during the whole of the decade, the Football Association's director of coaching and education. Hughes managed to convince the nation that direct, long-ball football as described above was the most effective tactic, using “statistics” in a clumsy and downright incorrect manner.

Charles Hughes
Charles Hughes, Director of Coaching and Education at the Football Association.
Photo by David Giles - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

By doing so, Hughes was able to formulate a plan which was in essence a national football coaching curriculum, and imposed this upon coaches throughout the country - including Bobby Robson and Graham Taylor, both England managers during this time.

He developed a system called the ‘Position of Maximum Opportunity’ (POMO) - which was inside the penalty area between the goal posts - and it essentially involved the above description and created “the mixer”.

This created predictable, simplistic, tactically devoid and creatively stumped players and teams throughout the 1980s as all footballers from those in academies to England internationals suffered under Hughes’ reign.

Tactical Phoenix

It was zombie football, and sees its legacy in developing ardent stereotypes and misconceptions throughout English football today - llingering issues that the FA are now desperate to battle.

However, within the last five years, the battle against physical development has really taken stride, and a tactical rebirth has taken shape. The phoenix and symbol of this rebirth? St. George’s Park, the centre for footballing development in England.

Tactical and creative development has been focused on above physicality and sheer athleticism; academies all over the nation are asked to have both patience and guile. Hopefully, long-gone are the days of genuinely world class footballers being omitted at a young age due to their diminutive stature.

Just look at the success of the English national youth sides in 2017 to see the effect of this rebirth, in ascending age order; Under-17 World Cup winners, European Under-17 Championship runners-up, European Under-19 Championship winners, Under-18 Toulon Tournament winners*, Under-20 World Cup winners and European Under-21 Championship semi-finalists.

*The competition is an Under-20 age group, but England sent their Under-18’s, including our very own Elliot Embleton.

Venezuela v England - FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017
England players and staff celebrate after the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017 Final match between Venezuela and England at Suwon World Cup Stadium on June 11, 2017.
Photo by Alex Morton - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

An incredible list of achievements. Overall, in 2016/17, the five England youth sides (U-17 - U-21) played 69 games, winning 61 of which, drawing four, and losing just four - including the tournaments listed above and a range of friendlies. An incredible achievement, unmatched by any other nation.

Therefore, if English football itself is in the process of a hugely successful process - so far - why do these stereotypes exist?


The European Cup Final in 1985 (Heysel) marked the beginning of the nadir of English football, along with the Valley Parade fire just a fortnight before. This lasted until 1992 and included Hillsborough and five years of isolation. In these three events respectively, 39, 56 and 96 fans perished due to violence, a fatal and engulfing fire and policing errors.

From 1985-1990, English teams were banned from football as a result of Heysel, and as a result an already arrogant English footballing culture based on tradition, and slow to embrace change, became even more insular. That is, until 1992.

The Premier League essentially saved football in the nation (in the immediate short-term, in the long-term it has destroyed it once again, but I’ll revisit this in the future). Football irrevocably did not start in 1992, and the notion is one of the most frustrating in football today; however, it essentially does denote the birth of modern football.

1992 was the birth of a new, exciting and sanitised league designed to leave behind the tactical dearth and violence of the 1980s. The biggest achievement of the Premier League? The importation of foreign players, managers and tactics.

Tactical acumen in England is on an exponential upward curve, with admittedly some room to manoeuvre yet, but, without a doubt, we can now look to the continental pioneers at how to develop further and remove these ardent stereotypes, one of which, I have tried to debunk here.

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